Andrei Vinogradov, head of the Kizlyar district administration in Dagestan, is not the first official to be abducted in this way. The republican authorities were totally unaware of what was happening two years ago when Said Amirov, mayor of Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala at the time, was suddenly arrested on murder charges.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has charged Vinogradov with organising contract killings and funding terrorism. But Vinogradov was not the main target of the operation – that was Sagid Murtazaliyev, a member of the republic’s legislative assembly and head of the republic’s branch of the state pension fund. Murtazaliyev is also leader of one of Dagestan’s most influential clans in the 1990s.
All Murtazaliyev’s homes around the republic were searched: evidently the special forces were unaware that, since appearing as a key witness at the trial of Said Amirov, who leads another clan, Murtazaliyev has chosen to live in Dubai.
‘We’re not making appointments to see the chief. We’re in a difficult situation and we’re not sure how we’ll be working for the moment,’ says the young secretary, peeking out from behind the piles of files on her desk.
Wednesday is open day at the Kizlyar district offices: Vinogradov usually received members of the public from nine to twelve. There was always a crowd spilling out of the doors. But today the building is quiet and empty; there is not even a security man on the metal detector at the door, the corridors echo and the staff seem to be lowering their voices. Several days have passed since the district head was arrested.
Andrei Vinogradov at Moscow's Basmanny Court, 29 July. (c) Ramil Sitdikov / VisualRIAN.
No one in the town of Kizlyar really noticed Vinogradov’s arrest, dramatic though it was —a lightning night raid on his house by federal spetsnaz operatives, a helicopter to whisk him off to Moscow. Even the local police, called out at three in the morning to protect the district head from unidentified men, beat a hasty retreat when they saw the uniforms.
The local police, called out at three in the morning, beat a hasty retreat when they saw the uniforms.
The raid was carried out with surgical precision. Vinogradov’s own security team had no chance to open fire, and there was plenty of room for manoeuvre—the five hectares of fenced territory on the outskirts of town, which contain the homes of Andrei Vinogradov and Sagid Murtazaliyev.
The few closely grouped houses with three-metre high walls and wrought iron gates, a double ring of heavies with Kalashnikovs and a complex system of entrances and exits to and from the fields, the forest and the highway are more reminiscent of a fortified zone somewhere in Bagdad than the residences of provincial civil servants.
A hot wind is blowing in my face, and the road is lined with piles of yellow and green fruit: melons at 20 roubles (20p) a kilo, watermelons for 10 (10p).
The dry wind is turning the grass into fragile hay and melting the air like butter: you can hardly breathe. The Kizlyar district, on Dagestan’s border with Chechnya, is very different from the rest of the republic, with steppe instead of mountains and a majority population are descendents of Cossacks, whose original home was in what is now Ukraine.
The town of Derbent. Bolshakov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Tucked neatly between the steppe, the Caspian Sea and the Chechen Republic, the Kizlyar district became a honeypot for hungry and enterprising Russian bureaucrats in the 1990s and 2000s. Its cattle-farms and hundreds of hectares of arable crops gave them not only fat livestock and abundant harvests, but plenty of opportunity for fraudulent land deals. The Caspian Sea, meanwhile, provided fish, including valuable sturgeon: for many years, Kizlyar was an important centre for caviar smuggling operations.
For many years Kizlyar was an important centre for caviar smuggling operations
Major oil pipelines also crossed the area from Chechnya, bringing untold wealth: there were hundreds of illegal ‘tapping points’ to siphon off the oil. It got to the point where respectable citizens would give young couples their own ‘point’ as a wedding gift.
The border with Chechnya brought its own benefits: the militants would slip across for holidays, treating it as a home from home. The security forces couldn’t cross as quietly with their troop carriers, but ‘flexible’ relationships with both groups kept everybody happy.
The back story
Sagid Murtazaliyev first came to fame as an Olympic wrestling champion, but he quickly swapped sport for politics, first becoming a prominent figure in the Northern Alliance, an informal movement of Avars, the most numerous of Dagestan’s several ethnic groups, and then a member of the republic’s legislative assembly.
Murtazaliyev has always felt close to Kizlyar, which is his wife’s home district, and, in 2007, became its head of administration. He then gradually spread his influence into neighbouring districts. In 2010, Murtazaliyev was appointed to run the pension fund in Dagestan.
To ensure a smooth succession, Murtazaliyev had Andrei Vinogradov, his personal driver, appointed as administration chief in his place (Vinogradov later married one of his relatives, becoming a member of his extended family).
For five years, Vinogradov was a competent public servant. Just a few days before his arrest, he was awarded a medal for good work by the Head of the Republic, Ramazan Abdulatipov. On the surface, Vinogradov’s record was unblemished in nearly every respect: over the last decade, the sturgeon and the insurgents more or less moved away and the fashion for siphoning off oil passed, but the melons still ripened in the fields and the sheep fattened in the meadows.
A few years ago, however, the Gamzatov family case opened a whole new can of worms. In March 2012, town council member Magomed Gamzatov, three of his brothers and a nephew were gunned down in the centre of Kizlyar. Five people openly murdered in broad daylight in sight of dozens of witnesses.
The Gamzatov brothers had long had various disputes with Sagid Murtazaliyev’s people. There was a trial: six of Andrei Vinogradov’s security guards were in the dock and the administration chief himself was a witness. ‘It was an open and shut case’, says Sapiat Magomedova, the lawyer who represented the Gamzatov family. ‘There was all the evidence needed for a conviction. But the jury members and witnesses were still in fear of their lives’.
The pressure was such that, after two years of hearings and the existence of five corpses, the jurors would not even admit that a crime had been committed. The jury was sent away for deliberation four times without any progress being made. It was only on the fifth occasion that they admitted that there had been a crime, but all the defendants were nevertheless acquitted.
Despite five corpses and two years of hearings, the jurors would not admit that a crime had been committed.
‘I don’t think they will demand another review of the case now,’ a distant relative of the Gamzatovs tells me uncertainly. (Closer family members prefer not to make public statements and categorically refuse to talk to journalists.)
‘So far it’s all just hot air. It hardly matters whether the Investigative Committee takes it further, Sagid has connections everywhere - Ramzan Kadyrov [Head of the Chechen Republic] calls him his brother. A few years ago, the people in Moscow carried out an inspection of the pension fund. They seized a load of papers and made threats about prosecutions, but nothing came of it. His [Murtazaliyev’s] people are everywhere, and our clan still has to go on living here.’
As the lad speaks, his eyes follow a jeep driving past: it carries a number plate containing three ‘ones’ – the trademark of people working for Sagid Murtazaliyev.
This article is a translation from an original publication by Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's leading independent newspapers.